Shakespeare’s aphorism is as applicable to organizations as to individuals: “the evil they do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” Let it not be so with the United Nations. Rather, let us recall with pride the process of reform in the organization. Much, in fact, has already been accomplished. There is no doubt that the series of reforms, both those internally generated and those recommended by external review groups and panels, has helped to renew and revitalize the organization.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the U.N.’s performance has been somewhat patchy and variable. It has been neither uniform in its response, nor consistent in the quality of services provided. That is another compelling reason why the process of reform must be continued, to offset the unevenness of the organization’s record and lift its collective performance to a higher plane of consistency.
At a time when the very principle of multilateralism is under challenge, when the world organization’s most powerful and influential member throws down the gauntlet of relevance, the demands on the U.N. continue to be great and urgent, the expectations held of it compelling and poignant. To be faithful to the nations and peoples of the world who have kept faith with it for almost six decades, the U.N. must persevere in its collective effort to consolidate existing strengths and assets, reinforce weak structures, and eliminate wasteful habits and procedures.
The just-published Report of the Secretary General on U.N. reforms is his second report on the subject, the first dating to 1997. The philosophy underpinning the new report can be summed up in five words: clarify, simplify, rationalize, streamline and evaluate.
There is a need to clarify what the U.N., and each unit within the U.N., does and should be doing. Procedures and documents need to be simplified as much as possible in order to cut time and effort and increase productivity. Rationalization will help to reduce duplication, streamlining will strengthen efficiency, and evaluation will allow us to measure the effectiveness and impact of what the various departments do.
In “Strengthening the United Nations: An Agenda for Further Change,” published Sept. 23, Secretary General Kofi Annan recalls the accomplishments since 1997, but also the stalled process of reforming the Security Council, the need to improve the performance of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, and the need to address the problem of “summit fatigue,” notwithstanding the major achievements of some global conferences.
There are five principal messages in the new report. First, the U.N. must be clear on what to do before it can learn how to do it well. There is a need to shed some accumulated responsibilities that are no longer relevant in today’s world, in order to devote more focused attention to urgent issues such as terrorism, water scarcity, HIV/AIDS, human rights, aging, etc.
Second, so much of the U.N.’s work takes the form of providing documentation and facilities (including translation) for debates and decisions by the governments of the world that the efficiency and effectiveness of these services need continual improvement and modernization. The present situation with regard to domentary paperwork is that there is too much, and it is too complex, too long and often too late. Instead we need less documentation, and it needs to be simpler, shorter and delivered in time. Third, the U.N. system is dispersed across the world, comprising a number of different units often working together with partners from government, civil society and the private sector. This places a premium on coordination in order to avoid duplication and fragmentation and a correspondingly diminished impact. The relationship with civil society, strongly promoted by Annan, will be examined by a panel of experts who will make appropriate recommendations on how to strengthen the U.N.-civil society partnership.
One of Annan’s achievements has been to make the U.N. far more welcoming toward the private sector. He expresses the hope that the Global Compact between the U.N. and private-sector firms, based on nine core principles drawn from human rights and labor and environmental standards, will prove in time to be “an important instrument for instilling civic virtue in the global marketplace.”
Fourth, there is by now a strategic disconnect between the establishment of program priorities for the U.N. and the allocation of resources to achieve common goals. The present system is slow and labor intensive. Annan outlines the elements of a simpler and more rational package that could help to bring ends and means closer together, for everyone’s benefit.
And finally, the secretary general looks at how to attract and keep the best people as U.N. staff by offering them a rewarding career as international civil servants. He has explained in the past that the reforms are not a cost-cutting exercise, that the goal is to have the right person in the right job with the appropriate structures in place to let them get on with their jobs and be rewarded or sanctioned for their performance. The U.N. has to be lean, but must not be mean: An unhappy workforce is not a productive workforce. Nor must cost-cutting be driven by ideological extremism to the point where relentless shedding of “excess” fat turns the organization into “U.N. Lite.” At the same time, however, the necessary reforms must not be gutted simply for the sake of protecting any particular category of jobs.
The U.N. is at once both the symbol of a common future for the betterment of humanity, and the institutional means of bringing about such a better future for all of humanity. Its structures and processes should be the principal vehicle for the attainment of humanity’s collective goals. The reform package is an effort to redesign and rededicate the organization so that in its structure and by its operations, it helps to bring about a world where fear is changed to hope, want gives way to dignity, and apprehensions are turned into aspirations.
The U.N. is charged with the stewardship of the world’s collective destiny. With the requisite support from member states, implementation of the reforms will help in repositioning the organization and setting it on course to discharge its stewardship of care for the human family.
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